Saturday, August 27, 2011

South China Sea and the dream of a bipolar world….

The journey towards a bipolar world has already commenced and some believe that the principal route of this journey will be through the waters of South China Sea. The bipolarity lost at the end of previous century will be rediscovered in a matter of less than a decade, say some assessments. If history is any guide, the polar systems of world power always come into being as a result of major international conflicts involving many nations. And the resurgence of bipolarity will be no exception.

Why is this route so important? It is believed that nearly one third of the world’s shipping transits through the waters of South China Sea. It is also believed to be home to huge quantity of fisheries and have oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. But are these the reasons enough to trigger a global armed conflict? China, the major claimant to this sea, is all set to become the second super power in the next five years when its economy achieves the status of the strongest economy. The developments over this region are quite interesting and the analysts are not ready to discount the projections that 21st century will be naval century and, hence, any major war fought in this century will be fought at sea.

The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. It is a part of the Pacific with an area of 3.5 million kilometers. It is located south of mainland China and the island of Taiwan, west of the Philippines, north west of Sabah (Malaysia), Sarawak (Malaysia) and Brunei, north of Indonesia, north east of the Malay peninsula (Malaysia) and Singapore, and east of Vietnam. The minute South China Sea Islands, collectively an archipelago, number in the hundreds. The sea and its mostly uninhabited islands are subject to competing claims of sovereignty by several countries. These claims are also reflected in the variety of names used for the islands and the sea.

It is an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense. It is the second most used sea lane in the world, while in terms of world annual merchant fleet tonnage; over 50% passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. Over 1.6 million m³ (10 million barrels) of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca, where there are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.

The region has proven oil reserves of around 1.2 km³ (7.7 billion barrels), with an estimate of 4.5 km³ (28 billion barrels) in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 7,500 km³ (266 trillion cubic feet).

The area is a bone of contention between many nations. The disputes between these nations have been regarded as Asia's most potentially dangerous point of conflict. These disputes involve China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and other neighboring countries. The gravity of these disputes, and their potential for triggering an international war, can be gauged from the fact that in July 2010, US Secretary of State called for the Peoples Republic of China, the major claimant, to resolve the territorial dispute. China responded by demanding the US keep out of the issue. This came at a time when both countries have been engaging in naval exercises in a show of force to the opposing side, which increased tensions in the region. The US Military released a statement where it opposed the use of force to resolve the dispute, and accused China of assertive behavior.

Why is China so much assertive as accused by the US? No doubt, China is a major stakeholder but what is it that leads the conflict-averse country like China to be assertive in this case. The firm reply to the US asking it to mind its own business demonstrates two facts; China treats US interest in the dispute as latter’s interference in China’s affairs because south China Sea is legitimately a Chinese territory, or China has assumed the role of a major arbiter in the region and wants the US to stay away from its turf. China had to fill the vacuum in this area created as a result of US withdrawal from the Philippines.

Marine and energy resources, in the opinion of some analysts, are not the only reasons China is so assertive about this body of water. According to The Diplomat, the semi-closed sea is integral to China’s nuclear strategy. And without understanding the nuclear dimension of the South China Sea disputes, China’s maritime expansion makes little sense. Possessing a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent is a priority for China's military strategy. China’s single Type 092, or Xia-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, equipped with short-range JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), has never conducted a deterrent patrol from the Bohai Sea since its introduction in the 1980s. However, China is on the verge of acquiring credible second-strike capabilities with the anticipated introduction of JL-2 SLBMs (with an estimated range of 8,000 kilometers) coupled with DF-31 and DF-31A road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In addition, China plans to introduce up to five Type 094, or Jin-class, SSBNs outfitted with the JL-2 missiles, while constructing an underwater submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

With these kinds of strategic interests, China feels it is its legitimate right to keep the South China Sea off-limits. China also needs to secure its forces in the South China Sea and modify its maritime strategy and doctrine accordingly. Currently, the primary wartime missions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy are: 1) securing sea approaches to Taiwan; 2) conducting operations in the western Pacific to deny enemy forces freedom of action; 3) protecting Chinese sea lines of communication; and 4) interdicting enemy lines of communication. With the introduction of the Type 094, protecting Chinese SSBNs will become another primary mission, and this mission will require China to kill enemy strategic antisubmarine forces and end the resistance of other claimants in the South China Sea. Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities, especially quieter nuclear-powered attack submarines, can be used to counter enemy forward antisubmarine warfare operations. China’s aircraft carriers, already under sea trial, will be deployed in the South China Sea to silence the neighboring claimants.

If the tension on this sea intensifies, the world will witness global realignment into Allied and Axis powers as a prelude to First World Naval War. Presently, all nine states that touch the South China Sea are more or less arrayed against China and, therefore, dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military support. These conflicting claims are likely to become even more acute as Asia's spiraling energy demands -- energy consumption is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half that growth -- make the South China Sea the ever more central guarantor of the region's economic strength. Already, the South China Sea has increasingly become an armed camp, as the claimants build up and modernize their navies, even as the scramble for islands and reefs in recent decades is mostly over.

War or no war, will this realignment translate into another bi-polar world like the one which came into being post-WWII? Professor Samuel Huntington, in his famous book, Clash of Civilizations...., predicted a war between China and Vietnam sometimes close to 2010 over the maritime resources of this sea. In view of Huntington, this would be a war within a civilization; but the later evidence suggests that South China Sea will be a hotbed of a much broader international conflict. Analysts have their fingers crossed but given the economic growth and fast industrialization of China, the world is already on the road to its cherished dream of bipolarity.

1 comment:

  1. Despite its economic and mitary growth China may never become a global power transforming the world back to the bipolar status. While its economy may overtake US in a decade or so, the gap in military capability is too enormous to bridge in that time frame. China's first refurbrished carrier Is yet to become operational and by design its naval and air forces are defensively oriented in sea and area denial configuration. Its military technology and research base is decades behind and its strategic culture and history depicts a inward looking or at best regional interest.